Federal Politics


Policy the loser in quest for presidential star power

Kevin Rudd still doesn't get it and that's why he's occasionally attempting to white-ant Gillard. But none of this matters, now.

Maxine McKew hasn't been in touch since I noted her book, Tales from the Political Trenches, didn't really illuminate why Kevin Rudd eventually proved to be such a hopeless prime minister that his own party dispatched him. Leaving Julia Gillard's relentless ambition aside, even his own MPs felt Rudd was so bad he had to be torn down rapidly, before the election. He still doesn't get it and that's why he's occasionally attempting to white-ant Gillard. But none of this matters, now.

There won't be a challenge and his political career is effectively over. Full stop. Finished. His lasting legacy is a simple moral tale: be nice, avoid hubris.

It's unfortunate everyone's examining McKew's book through Rudd's overweening ambition because there's much more to it than that. When she does eventually speak to me, she'll laugh gently and describe, for example - it's all in the book - the way the ALP machine pursued the white bread voters of western Sydney with such relentless passion they forgot about policy and the normal, intelligent voters in the centre.

That's one of the many insights we in the media passed over. Such as the way Sussex Street headquarters never understood that, although the Greens ballots of the inner city were always going to (eventually) return to Labor, the ethnic and Asian vote of the middle needed to be wooed and fought for. Nobody bothered. Labor ignores them still. That's why broader Australia's frustrated and angry, because both parties are presenting cardboard cut-out policy templates to a diverse, sophisticated electorate and expecting us to buy it.

There's a good reason the basic unit of journalism is called a ''story''. To understand what's really going on, however, you've got to get behind the pastiche on the nightly news. That's when you find out, for example, that Labor's taking great heart from the US result. Over there, two relatively unpopular candidates fought it out: the least disliked won.

Here in Australia, we love US President Barack Obama because he's positive and uses the word ''hope''. But there's not a lot of that particular commodity around in the US at the moment. People are, perhaps rightly, disillusioned. Three things got the Democrats across the line last week. A slick campaign at the grassroots raising money and using social media networks, demonising their opponent and the power of incumbency. That's what presidential style campaigning's all about. And it works.


Unfortunately, it pushes policy to the sidelines. There is, however, something very seductive about the idea that we think we ''know'' the leaders we're voting for. It's an idea with appeal because most people don't engage, often or deeply, with politics. It's easier to vote for a person rather than thinking about policy prescriptions. Instead of being forced to get your head around all the minutiae, concentrating on the leader allows you to pick someone and leave everything to them. It's simple. And this explains what happened in the ACT election.

Labor and Liberal alike put the focus on individuals: Katy Gallagher and Zed Seselja. The media was making stories out of people, hence the concentration on the ''leader''. The Greens were brushed aside. No central, dynamic figure equalled no mojo.

There are other ways of interpreting the decline in their vote, of course. Federal Labor MP for Fraser Andrew Leigh emphasises there wasn't a lot in it.

Had a few hundred votes flowed the other way ''we might be talking now about how the Greens have solidified their base'', he says.

''The point is, though, they didn't. One in 10 small businesses vanish every year,'' he adds. ''Perhaps third parties have their life cycle as well.''

This city's other member, Labor's Gai Brodtmann, says local issues were critical.

''There's a stark difference emerging between Labor and Liberal at the federal level. This is one of the most conservative coalitions in living memory and they want to retrench 20,000 public servants. There's no comparison,'' she says.

Her comments refer to another common link between the two elections: demographics matter. In the US, the victory can be directly attributed to female and Hispanic voters overwhelmingly plumping for Obama. Similarly here, there's increased interest in isolating particular constituencies that may have their own interests that overcome the usual comfortable assumptions about the thoughts of people who happen to inhabit particular marginal seats.

The old geographic paradigm still works in some places. The US election was marked by the success of lower house Republicans in rural communities. But not in the cities.

Surely nobody will ever again get away with spouting rubbish about ''legitimate rape'' because the smaller constituencies are finding their voice. The two most egregious Republicans were dispatched by the electorate, as they should have been. But the positive mood of 2008 was replaced with a targeted negative campaign against the conservatives.

There are a couple of other lessons, too, both particularly relevant to the federal scene. The first is the value of incumbency, especially in a time of economic fear. But there's a second lesson as well and it's one that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will have to start paying attention to. Centrist policies - not those of the extreme right - are the ones that enthuse people. And just like Republican candidate Mitt Romney, Abbott isn't scoring well among female voters. Australia wants to be a socially tolerant place. The US result should act as a warning to the Coalition.

But sometimes the old thinking still holds sway and Australia remains in a class of its own. Not even the most fawning US leader rolls about on the floor in front of the Prince of Wales, begging for approval, the way ours do. Gillard's toadying, obsequious request for him to rename Parkes Place (honouring a founding father of Federation) for his mother sends out the old, ridiculous, alienating message - white bread forever.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.